Angry nationalism shouts down prudence. Disproportionate military spending threatens economic wellbeing. Industry has its hand so deep in the government's purse that private enterprise is becoming public property. The currency falters, the infrastructure crumbles and a supine media, once a watchdog of the powerful, happily licks the strongman's hand.
If the picture looks familiar, that's because we've seen it many times before, from Argentina to Chile to Russia. The U.S. is third worlding.
by Ximena Ortiz
January 2010 The American Conservative
In this articulate, insightful, yet highly accessible and blunt analysis, Ximena Ortiz makes a compelling case for the argument the United States is becoming it's own worst enemy: a militaristic, corrupt, Third World State.
In what ways does the U.S. "look little like the country it was a generation ago and more like nations it has long condemned"? Here is a short summary of some of Ortiz's assertions:
The emphasis on offended honor--particularly male honor--is an integral part of life in the Third World. Humiliation must be quickly avenged to uphold street cred. A repressive leader quickly realizes that the best way to unite his countrymen is to rally them against an outside threat--actual or invented.
Bolivia: When Evo Morales became president of Bolivia, he stoked hostility with Chile, blocking the construction of a pipeline to
export Bolivian natural gas, at significant cost to his own nation, because it would pass through Chile.
North Korea: A tradition of defiance and nationalistic self-reliance, known as juche, is a cultural imperative. If the regime abandoned its bellicose posturing, its power mystique would shatter.
Muslim World: Across the Muslim world, the pursuit of honor is a crucial driver in jihadi recruitment. A sense of grievance motivates extremism.
America: As George W. Bush was fond of doing, Barack Obama looks penetratingly into the camera, addressing all the South Asian terrorists watching CNN from their burrows. He vows to defeat them--using other people's lives. With demagogic mastery, he, too, has tapped America's proud warrior culture, a latent force before the age of terror. As the martial spirit rises, soldiers are necessarily heroes, even though they are treated as expendable. Patriotism is defined in militaristic terms. And it's not unusual for an American president to wear a jacket with "Commander in Chief" emblazoned across the chest--an only slightly subtler version of Chavez and Castro couture.
This honor impulse has become a way of life. It rules our international conduct and makes our wars nearly impossible to quit. The fact that 19 misfits with box-cutters scarcely constituted an invading army was of little consequence--that anyone could touch us so shocked the American system that we lashed out with disproportionate fury. When wounded ego drives policy, force becomes the default.
In countries with a history of authoritarianism, it is not uncommon for the practiced agitators who presided over a crisis to hold sway long after they appear to exit power.
Russia: Former president Vladimir Putin rules extra-officially.
Chile: For years after the transition to democracy, the military was guaranteed seats in the legislature.
Argentina: After the Dirty War, the army staged rebellions to compel the executive to limit the scope of prosecutions. Even after a crisis subsides, much of the population remains in panic mode and supports the bare-knuckled approach of the previous government.
America: Dick Cheney wields such clout that even after his term ended he gave the order and previously classified information on "enhanced interrogation" was made public. His contention that the disclosure proves the value of those interrogations remains inconclusive, but he demonstrated his reach.
Interestingly, Cheney appears to have cribbed from the Argentine junta's self-aggrandizing farewell statements. He claims abusive interrogators risked their lives and "deserve our gratitude"--as he surely does, too.
Cheney has already de facto immunized those who transgressed the Bush administration's abusive guidelines. In August, Chris Wallace asked him, "So even these cases where they went beyond the specific legal authorization, you're OK with it?" Cheney, unhindered by such quaint constraints as the rule of law, responded with a succinct "I am."
Barack Obama, for all his pledges of transparency, has upheld government secrecy to shield the previous administration and the former vice president in particular. He blocked the release of the FBI's interview of Cheney in the Valerie Plame case, though a federal judge recently rejected arguments for keeping the file sealed.
The Obama administration has promoted, through its actions and its rhetoric, the fiction that post-9/11 abuses were committed by "bad apple" agents rather than condoned by high-ranking officials.
Rodolfo Braceli writing about the Argentine media during the Falklands War: "The majority of the media and many notable journalists, more than being submissive and saving their skin, had a good time. They were not victims. Nor were they innocents. To say they were not innocents is the gentlest of ways of saying that they were, also, particularly culpable.... And there is more to reexamine: submission out of fear is one thing, and quite another is the genuflection, sugar-coated and gleeful, of complicity. Of the latter there was too much."
We are not much better today.
Reporter Ashley Banfield described coverage of the Iraq War by embedded American reporters: "It was a glorious, wonderful picture that had a lot of people watching and a lot of advertisers excited about cable news. But it wasn't journalism, because I'm not so sure that we in America are hesitant to do this again, to fight another war, because it looked like a glorious and courageous and so successful, terrific endeavor."
Long before the Pentagon discovered embedding, the Argentine junta selected the journalists allowed into the Falklands to cover theconflict and checked all news content. As Stars and Stripes reported in a recent series, the Defense Department has been following a similar strategy, hiring the Rendon Group to prepare graded reports on journalists seeking embed positions, assessing how favorable their
coverage has been.
(That the Pentagon continued to use Rendon at all is highly suspect given the group's disreputable history. Prior to the Iraq War, Rendon promoted million-dollar contracts to Ahmad Chalabi, who, in turn, forwarded fraudulent intelligence reports on Iraqi
weapons to the Pentagon.)
(The) independence of America's Fourth Estate has eroded dramatically after Sept. 11. Americans tuning in to the evening news saw flags undulating in the background of war reports, often coupled with a subtle, flapping sound-effect tying war to patriotism.
Soldiers as Fodder
Russia and Pakistan: Armed forces enjoy considerable clout and resources, but often benefits only the upper tiers, which deploy foot soldiers with little planning or consideration of risk. In 1996, during Russia's war with Chechnya, national security adviser Alexander Lebed admitted that Russian soldiers were "hungry, lice-infested and underclothed."
America: Despite the lip service paid to U.S. troops, they face similar, often life-threatening shortfalls. Gen. Anthony Zinni echoed some of Lebed's concerns when he said of the preparations for the Iraq War, "I saw, at a minimum, true dereliction, negligence, and irresponsibility; at worst, lying, incompetence, and corruption."
To this day, Kellogg Brown & Root (KBR) has not been held accountable for the injuries and deaths of troops who guarded a toxin-polluted facility that provided treated water. According to whistleblowers and memos, KBR knew the facility was contaminated with sodium dichromate, which is linked to cancer, long before the company informed U.S. officials. Nearly 1,200 troops were exposed to the substance, and the Army is refusing to provide most of the injured veterans with health benefits.
But again, KBR received bonuses.
How smoothly our leaders speak of supporting the troops--only to command them carelessly and forbid them from leaving when their tours end. To fill its quotas, top brass persists in the institutional sleight of hand known as "stop loss," forcing troops to serve prolonged and serial deployments. Many who return home scarred will struggle to get care: 37 percent of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans suffer mental-health issues. The Marine Corps Times reports that 915,000 unprocessed claims are waiting at the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Military Spending as percentage of GDP
In the CIA's ranking of military spending as a percentage of GDP, Third World countries dominate the first 50-plus slots, with the United States in the middle of the heap at number 28, flanked by Chad and Libya--hardly flattering company. This disproportionate devotion to military spending has had profound costs, hastening the country's economic meltdown.
Bailout of Necessity
(The rhetoric is populist, the practice elitist.)
In the Third World, crises often beget ill-considered policies that result in economic blowback--which in turn breeds further crises. Leaders try to rush their initiatives before legislatures (where they exist) and the media (where it is allowed to operate) have a chance to air drawbacks or propose more moderate alternatives.
Like America today, Argentina in the 1980s had not recovered economically from its war and the profligacy of the junta when crisis struck. President Carlos Menem responded by invoking 472 Decrees of Urgency and Necessity from 1989 to 1998, refining the Third-World art of crony capitalism and state-power centralization. He used privatization as a form of political patronage, doling out the country's assets at below-market prices, with no bidding, or vetting.
Hector E. Schamis wrote of Argentina's Menem's maneuvers, in a passage that now seems prophetic of what would happen in the U.S., "by colluding with the largest segments of Argentina's business groups, Menem cemented a minimum winning coalition that benefited from the economic reform program and provided key political support. By distributing selective incentives among potential opponents, he divided and disarticulated rivals."
Larry Summers made the appeal for the second round of TARP funds, claiming that the need for billions of dollars was "imminent and urgent." Obama promised to improve TARP's transparency: "Many of us have been disappointed with the absence of clarity, the failure to track how the money's been spent." But his Treasury Department has done the opposite. Moreover, TARP has overwhelmingly aided the big banks; homeowners have seen scant relief.
As in so many collapsed countries, an increasingly large portion of American wealth goes toward debt. Infrastructure sags. Only industries favored by the government thrive. The middle class shrinks as it is squeezed to fund programs that keep the wealthy comfortable and the poor from rioting. The only difference is that the U.S. has an ability to continue borrowing--for now.
Decline and Fall?
Crisis has pushed the U.S. toward Third World policies with alarming swiftness. But the risk is not that Americans will bring out the pitchforks and join the protesters. Rather, citizens seem as disaffected and resigned as their Third World brethren, only occasionally roused from reality TV by their favorite pundit peddling the outrage du jour.
The far Right wallows in paranoia with its dreams of overturning an
election by discovering a Kenyan birth certificate. Most on the Left
seem too mesmerized by the president to hold him accountable. The
media ranges from insipid to hysterical. This country may never see
the reasons for--and the parallels to--its disintegration.
The United States has transgressed her traditions in the fog of war before, only to redeem herself later. But we are now engaged in a war without borders against a self-multiplying enemy. There is no army to trounce, so no clear end to the bloodletting or bankrupting.
What others say:
Colonel W. Patrick Lang is a retired senior officer of U.S. Military Intelligence and U.S. Army Special Forces (The Green Berets). He served in the Department of Defense both as a serving officer and then as a member of the Defense Senior Executive Service for many years. He is a highly decorated veteran of several of America’s overseas conflicts including the war in Vietnam. He was trained and educated as a specialist in the Middle East by the U.S. Army and served in that region for many years. He was the first Professor of the Arabic Language at the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York.
Americans now seem to be largely ruled by passion and ignorance. Most of the public does not read anything of value. Television shows like "24" constitute their image of foreign affairs. The Republican Party, the party of Lincoln and Dwight Eisenhower is enraptured by a politician who could not recall what she reads to be informed.
I find myself continually involved in conversations with people who really do not understand that we have "done" COIN many times. We have been there, done that and it was too hard, too long and too expensive. I write fiction set in the Civil War. Let's see, the North were the good guys, and...
An emerging third world country can not continue to fight wars that it does not understand in places it can only vaguely imagine.
Andrew Bacevich is a former U.S. Army colonel and author of The New American Militarism:
"There was a time in recent memory, most notably while the so-called Vietnam Syndrome infected the American body politic, when Republican and Democratic administrations alike viewed with real trepidation the prospect of sending U.S. stoops into action abroad. Since the advent of the new Wilsonianism, self-restraint regarding the use of force has all but disappeared."
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